Spanish Majorcan missionary to the New World, Blessed Junípero Serra is known as the “Apostle of California.” His statue is one of only 100 “Founding Fathers” honored in the American Capitol's Hall of Fame. Padre (Spanish for “Father”) or Fray (“Brother”) Serra was a spiritual giant who personified some of the noblest contributions of Christian civilization, including the call to holiness, academic excellence, and authentic Christian mission.
Raised on the Spanish island of Majorca, from his youth Serra possessed both academic gifts and godly zeal. He applied himself to the study of philosophy and theology. But his real inspiration came from reading the chronicles of great Franciscan saints and blesseds, especially those of pioneering missionaries. He dreamed of following their example.
After completing his initial studies, and even before his ordination in 1738, Junípero led a brilliant teaching career. He taught first for his province, then as Professor of the Duns Scotus Chair of Philosophy at Lullian University in Palma, Majorca, where he had earned his doctorate in theology.
Junípero forsook his proven ministry and beloved homeland, setting sail for the New World in 1749. He soon distinguished himself as an effective evangelist and administrator, serving for 19 years in the established missions and schools of what is now Mexico and Baja California. But always his heart was to the north and the unchurched. Finally, at the age of 55, his life's dream came true. He was named to spearhead the settlement and Christianization of Alta (upper/present-day) California.
Padre Serra established nine missions from San Diego to San Francisco. His Franciscan companions would end up bringing the total to 21 by 1823. He personally baptized over 6,000 people and confirmed over 5,000. Although he suffered from an ulcerated leg, he logged over 5,500 miles on foot in the New World.
One of Serra's chief goals was to affirm the dignity of the native Californians. He shared with them the best of civilization, agriculture, architecture, and hygienic and moral standards. He worked tirelessly in the defense of their rights as human beings, Spanish citizens, and members of the church. They affectionately called him El Viejo, the “Old Man,” who, despite his years and infirmities, labored for their salvation and well-being. At his death, out of their deep love, hundreds flocked to pay him homage, “lamenting the loss of ‘their holy father, their blessed father, the best man on earth,’ as they were wont to say.”
The Spanish mission heritage is not forgotten in California. Countless places are named in honor of great Catholic and Franciscan saints. Hundreds of thousands visit the restored missions yearly, many of them on a spiritual pilgrimage, seeking answers to their questions from a quiet past.
In September of 1987, one year before he beatified Serra in Rome, Pope John Paul II came to the San Carlos Mission in Carmel on a pilgrimage. He declared this resting place of Padre Serra to be “the historical and spiritual heart of California.” He extolled Serra as a man of “single-minded devotion and witness,” who was “convinced of the Church's mission … to make disciples of all nations.” He then challenged all Christians to evangelize, relying, as did the early Franciscans, on the Lord's strength: “It is the strength that inspired Father Serra's motto: ‘Always forward, never back.’”
SEE ALSO: American Christianity; Eighteenth Century Christianity; Evangelism; Franciscans; Mexican Christianity